To the editors:

Considering how few Catholics there are today who know what their Church teaches, it was not surprising to find several errors in Cecil Adams’s November 20 column [The Straight Dope] on the disrespectable popes. After all, Catholic “theologians” who distort and tailor official doctrines to suit their own tastes abound, and it is they who are exclusively interviewed and quoted in the secular press, so who can blame Cecil for making a few mistakes?

Nevertheless, a goof’s a goof and two goofs are worse, so allow me to straighten out some of the crooked dope in that article.

Cecil said, “The Church acknowledges that the office has been held by unworthy men, but maintains that their spiritual capacities were unimpaired by their temporal failings.” The first part of that statement is correct. The second is false.

The Church always has and always will teach that you cannot serve two masters. No one can lead a carnal life of habitual self-gratification and still maintain a healthy spiritual life. Not even popes can do that. Those popes who led lascivious lives, sired bastards, or murdered rivals did so precisely because they lacked spiritual capacities.

Your readers should be reminded that we celebrate no feast in honor of Alexander VI and I’ve heard that Dante Alighieri consigned a few prelates to choice real estate in the Inferno. What is important to note in all this is that none of these poor Vicars of Christ ever attempted to define a doctrine as infallibly true or condemn a certain type of conduct as infallibly immoral. They were, let us say, too preoccupied with other matters to be concerned with dogma.

The Church concedes that these men were scandals. Period. The reference to Gary Hart, while amusing, was really out of place. Such popes’ conduct in no way compromised the doctrine of infallibility because they never pretended to exercise it. So it doesn’t need to be argued, as Cecil claimed, that such popes did not lead the Church astray, permanently or temporarily. They didn’t define anything we have to believe. Moreover, as I shall explain shortly, infallibility wasn’t “formally pronounced” until much later.

Another incorrect statement in Mr. Adams’s column is this one: “The doctrine of papal infallibility applies only to certain formal pronouncements on faith and morals.”

Again, few Catholics (including not a few bishops) understand that it is not only the Extraordinary Magisterium (teaching authority) that is infallible, but the Ordinary Magisterium also. To prove this, all you have to do is read the Constitution Dei filius of the First Vatican Council. (Yes folks, there was life before Vatican II, believe it or not. There actually were other ecumenical councils before 1962, although you never hear about them anymore. Pope John XXIII did not invent the idea!)

In Dei filius, the twofold nature of the Church’s infallible Magisterium was set forth in these words: “It is a duty to believe . . . all . . . that the Church puts forward to be believed as revealed truth either in a solemn judgment [Cecil’s “formal pronouncement,” also called ex cathedra definitions, like the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary] or by her ordinary and universal Magisterium.”

The formal pronouncements Cecil said were the only infallible ones are quite rare and exceptional, as a matter of fact. The pontifical documents which come most frequently before Catholics are encyclicals, allocutions, radio messages, and papal speeches. These are the many ways in which the Ordinary Magisterium functions or expresses itself. It was practically the only procedure known in the earliest centuries. Pope John Paul II traveling around the globe reminding the faithful of the teachings of the Church (which their own bishops have neglected to impart) is the most dramatic and common exercise of the Ordinary Magisterium today. When he reiterates something the Church has always taught, he speaks infallibly. Just because there are no bells and whistles, no pomp and incense, doesn’t mean Catholics can ignore his doctrine.

A picky point, you say? Not at all. It is at the heart of dissent in the Church today. Too many Catholics think that they don’t have to believe something just because the pope didn’t speak ex cathedra about it. Nonsense. Catholics had to believe in the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption before as well as after they were formally defined.

To put it another way: the theological mark of heresy applies not only to what contradicts a defined truth, but also to what conflicts with a truth clearly put forward by the Ordinary Magisterium. The solemn judgment only adds a juridical obligation to a moral obligation, with accompanying penalties.

There is much other questionable matter in Cecil’s commentary on infallibility, but those two are the most important to understand correctly. For instance, Jeffrey Russell asked three questions. Cecil dispatched the first two in three sentences but devoted 27 to the third, when one would have sufficed (“The story is bogus”). Also, he said Pius IV had three children, “and the list goes on.” As a matter of fact, that’s where the list ends.

An important point seems to have escaped Cecil and his questioner. Despite all those bad popes, the Church is still here, two thousand years after her founding. As the Jew in one of Boccaccio’s stories said after returning from Rome to embrace Catholicism, “Any organization that can survive despite such corruption must be the true Church,” or words to that effect.

But for those minor details, it was an interesting article. Keep it straight, Dope.

Richard O’Connor

Highland, Indiana

PS: If this were not true, critics of the Church’s claim to speak infallibly would have no beef, no cause for scandal, for the doctrine was not defined formally until 1854, long after the bad popes.

Cecil Adams replies:

Mr. O’Connor raises three issues, by my count, and is mistaken on all of them.

1. By “spiritual capacities” I didn’t mean the popes’ personal morals but rather their ability to call down the blessings of God on the faithful. The bad popes consecrated priests, forgave sins, baptized babies, and so on. The Church maintains that these acts were not invalidated by the fact that the pope may have been in a state of sin at the time.

2. Regarding papal infallibility, the Encyclopaedia Britannica says, “The definition of the first Vatican Council . . . states the conditions under which a pope may be said to have spoken infallibly, or ex cathedra. It is prerequisite that the pope intend to demand irrevocable assent from the entire church in some aspect of faith or morals” [my emphasis]. The ordinary teachings of the Church, by contrast, are not infallible. The pope can say what he likes about birth control, and Catholics are obliged to obey, at least in the conservative view. But until he makes an infallible pronouncement on the subject, he has the option of someday changing his mind. This point has eluded Mr. O’Connor.

3. The list of illegitimate papal children goes on in the sense that I did not mention every single pope who was literally a holy father. For instance, there’s a tradition that Pope Hormisdas (514-523) was the father of Pope Silverius (536-537). It may not be proper to call Silverius illegitimate, since the rule of clerical celibacy was not firmly established in the early Church. Exactly how many papal children there were is probably impossible to determine, due to the lack of documentation for such things.

But for these minor details, it was an interesting letter.